As members of Congress in Washington debate raising the minimum required to obtain a U.S. immigrant investor visa from $500,000 to $1.35 million, Bloomberg reports concern about the hike has set off a scramble among wealthy would-be participants in China.
China’s wealthy, using not-always-legal means to skirt capital controls to get their money out and at the same time gain residency in the U.S., are continuing to dwarf all others as the largest participants in the EB-5 program, despite heightened measures by the Chinese government.
Chinese investors, several thousand a year, have made up as much as 85 percent of the annual EB-5 investor total, according to U.S. data provided by Rosen Consulting and the Asia Society. In 2015, China overtook Canada as the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. homes.
Because Chinese individuals are limited to exchanging $50,000 worth of yuan a year, a 10th of what the EB-5 program requires, Bloomberg reports that some agents are advising clients who don’t already have assets offshore to use a means nicknamed "smurfing" to move their money.
"Our suggestion to the client is to open three to four personal accounts in the U.S. or line up three to four friends’ accounts, so they can split the money and wire it to different personal accounts without being put on a blacklist by the Chinese authorities," said a Shanghai-based real estate agent who gave the surname Dong.
"It may require a trip to the States to do so to facilitate the process."
While the government in Beijing spent much of 2016 working to stop its citizens sending money abroad in order to stabilize its declining currency and foreign reserves, Chinese investors’ use of EB-5 continued anyway, totaling $3.8 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to data from the U.S. State Department.
EB-5 started decades ago as a way to create jobs in needy U.S. neighborhoods by attracting foreign investment. But it has run into political opposition amid charges the program is benefiting billionaire developers and being dominated by wealthy Chinese.
"EB-5 has been a key program for capital flight that has been abused by Americans and Chinese people seeking to game the system," said Andrew Collier, an independent analyst in Hong Kong and former president of Bank of China International USA.
While there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing by developers that receive funding from EB-5 (including the family of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who is seeking $850 million in EB-5 fundingrefinance and reconstruct its New York office building at 666 Fifth Avenue), a series of Securities and Exchange Commission cases against EB-5-linked immigrant investor centers led the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to announce last week that they would audit the centers amid concern about fraud.
Changes to the EB-5 minimum would affect property developers who rely on the program as a funding channel, said Michael Shaoul, chief executive officer at Marketfield Asset Management in New York.
"Any interruption of the program or reduction in Chinese participation would have a meaningful effect on a development cycle that is already showing signs of strain in certain key U.S. cities," he said by email.